Monday, October 17, 2011

Migrating birds often disappointed with land they fly to when it no longer meets winter-habitat criteria they ancestors enjoyed

Please click on image to ENLARGE view of Joe Neal's photo of a Virginia rail.
WHAT RAILS REMEMBER October 17, 2011

Birds remember landscapes fundamentally invisible to us non-birds. I am reminded of this by a telephone call on Saturday night from a gentleman who lives at Garfield north of Beaver Lake. He is an experienced outdoors person, but near his home he has encountered a stranger: in size and general coloration, reminds him of quail, but the bill is longish and pointed; dark eyes large, short awkward flights. Nothing pops up for me while we talk. But then I remember Doug James’ wife Elizabeth Adam finding a Viriginia Rail in a parking lot at Northwest Arkansas Mall (1987), Bruce Roberts finding one at a storage unit in Centerton (2005), and Calvin Bay’s strawberry patch bird in Fayetteville (2008).

Virginia Rail is today exceedingly rare in northwestern Arkansas, though I suspect the rarity is recent and entirely artificial. Habitat-wise, northwest Arkansas is divided between Ozark forest in the east and former tallgrass prairie in the west. Rails have been flying through our former prairies for eons, from nesting areas to our north, to wintering south. They have many thousands of years of experience with our grasslands that can be suitably wet and marshy in season. In their genes, they “remember.” When in migration they come down, they do so in “belief” of suitable wet grassland. Nothing prepares them for what genetically-speaking, is a mere twinkling of an eye: urban sprawl, asphalt parking lots, big boxes, empires of chicken and cattle, all so very recently consuming our seasonal wetlands.

A rail in a parking lot is the dramatic crash between what has taken so long to prepare in an evolutionary sense, bird migration, and exploitation driven by the self-defeating idea that our self-interest is all that matters. Lucky rails, like the one I saw in a spring-fed marshy patch at the state fish hatchery in Centerton (2006), still find suitable mid-journey respite.

Lost rail with genetic memory of a different land seems a good fit for Garfield. When I pass this on to my caller, and he has a chance to see Virginia Rails on the internet, he agrees.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vultures, condors, buzzards and whatever require DNA studies for clarification of family associations

It depends on what DNA analysis you want to believe.  The folks who study
avian anatormy were happy when the first DNA finding appeared because bsed 
on anatomical evdence they were trying for ears to convince the 
ornithologists that the condors were storks.
Douglas A. James                          tel:  479-575-6364
Department of Biological Sciences         fax:  479-575-4010
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701-1201, U.S.A.       e-mail:
On Thu, 13 Oct 2011, Neil Nodelman wrote:
> I thought I read that recent DNA analysis put them back into the hawk
> world??
> Neil
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Douglas A. James []
> Sent: Thursday, October 13, 2011 10:33 AM
> To: joeneal
> Cc:,; Armstrong,
> Lynn; Barnhill, Rosie; Barr, stephanie; Beall, Bill; Edie, Amy; Erwin,
> Steve; Fields, Warren; Froelich, Jacqueline;,
>; Harris, Nancy; Jones, Carole; Liz, Susan And;
> Lowrey, Beth; MADDOX, BEVERLY; mlodinow, michael; Mulhollan, Paige;
> Mulhollan, Kelly; Mulhollan, Mary Bess; Nodelman, Neil; riley, lisa;
> Schmidt, Brandon; Shepherd, Aubrey; STANFILL, TERRY; Stauffacher, Richard;
> tsweston; Turner, Ellen; VINEY, Michelle; Wisener, Ruth Ann; Woolbright,
> Joe; Young, Susan
> Subject: Re: vulture roost at Lake Sequoyah
> It is known that vultures drop their body temperature at night presumably
> to save energy.  That is why the roosts usually face east so the birds can
> spread eagle at sunrise and catch the first rays of the sun to regain
> normal body temperature.  Besides their food source is not going to run
> away after daybreak.  And they depend on the thermals that are produced as
> the day gets warmer.  Then they can glide effortlessly in search of a
> carcass.  Between carcasses they gain energy by consuming a lot if grass.
> Only the Turkey Vulture has a good sense of smell and finds the carcasses
> first.  The Black Vulture does not have a keen sense of small.  Black
> Vultures watch the activity of Turkey Vultures and gang up on them in
> groups chasing them away.  And I guess you all know that DNA evidence
> tells us that the Condors (which includes the Turkey and Black) are short
> legged storks.
> Douglas A. James                          tel:  479-575-6364
> Department of Biological Sciences         fax:  479-575-4010
> University of Arkansas
> Fayetteville, AR 72701-1201, U.S.A.       e-mail:
> On Thu, 13 Oct 2011, joeneal wrote:
>> Both Turkey and Black Vultures were going into a roost at Lake Sequoyah
> Park
>> in Fayetteville yesterday, with some birds already perched in the roost
> by at
>> least 6 PM. The roost site is on the northwest side of the lake, on a
>> forested slope facing due east. While some birds were in the roost,
> others
>> soared nearby, above and along a forested slope just northeast,
> apparently
>> using thermal updrafts produced by a modest southerly breeze pushed
> upward by
>> the mountain slope, giving the big birds a lift. This roost site has
> been in
>> use for years. We often see both vulture species there during the
>> Fayetteville Christmas Bird Count.
>> Lake Sequoyah was formed by damming the White River. The pre-dam White
> flowed
>> against a relatively low limestone bluff. The birds perch in trees along
> a
>> shallow and now completely forested holler running down the old bluff.
> This
>> affords them a fair amount of protection from wind chill out of the
> north and
>> northwest. Since the bluff faces east, it tends to warm up early in the
> day,
>> another good thing if you are a big creature that soars for a living.
>> A good spot to observe the vultures without disturbing them is an old
>> concrete bridge that once spanned the White River. Now a fishing pier,
> the
>> old bridge is a few hundred yards north of the roost site and provides a
> fine
>> view of the lake's dam end plus the surrounding forested hills. You
> reach
>> this part of the park on Lake Sequoyah Spur. Unfortunately, the forested
>> habitat between Lake Sequoyah Spur and the lake edge, including the
> roost, is
>> thin, and quite prone to disturbance, casual and deliberate.
>> --
>> JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Joe Neal on the paradox of disturbed and permanently flooded land providing bird-watching opportunity

Beaver Lake is one of the more beautiful settings in northwest
Arkansas. Extensive open water is one of the best places to find
winter waterfowl like loons, goldeneyes, and Bonaparte's Gulls. But I
feel paradox when I come here. Beaver was formed by drowning the
stunning, high bluff-lined valley of the upper White River. I was
thinking about all of this yesterday, at Prairie Creek, on Beaver east
of Rogers, when Joan Reynolds and I spotted a mature Bald Eagle near
the marina, plus a Summer Tanager, Yellow-throated Warbler, and
several Yellow-rumped Warblers in the picnic area. An immaculate
Osprey perched in a snag near the highway 12 boat launch.

Further east, towards Hobbes State Park-Conservation Area, we turned
down Key Road for good looks at Pine Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo,
and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. At the end of Key Road is Arkansas Game
and Fish Commission's Beaver Lake Nursery Pond, constructed in a
picturesque bend overlooking the lake. Near the gate we saw Nashville
Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, and a Yellow-throated Vireo that was
tearing apart a huge green caterpillar, juice flying. The pond has a
dramatic view of open water, bluffs, and sky. About 20 bird boxes line
a circular drive. Several years ago Joan was down here and noticed
that Tree Swallows were nesting in the boxes. Biologist Ron Moore from
Arkansas Game and Fish and his tech Jacob drove up. He said he would
welcome an established, appropriate group that wanted to monitor and
maintain the boxes. As far as I know, this potentially makes the
nursery pond our best place for nesting Tree Swallows.

At Rocky Branch, an adult Bald Eagle was perched in a snag way, way
across one of the widest part of Beaver, white head distinct against a
greenish blue background. Five birds flew across and far away. They
were unidentified duck species until two Wood Ducks flew much closer,
jogging my memory. For me it is an eco-sin to drown a river, and
probably to drive 60 miles to see an eagle, but today there is much
public land here because of the lake, whereas there would have been
very little without the lake. As a birding exploration unfolds, I save
my paradox sorting for a different day.

JOSEPH C. NEAL in Fayetteville, Arkansas